Expectant energy sparks in the theatre as the capacity crowd waits for Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-volume series My Struggle propelled him to stardom and established a category of writing all of its own. He has everyone talking, including the people sitting behind me: ‘He is very serious’, one says. ‘Apparently the books aren’t entirely based on his life’, says another.
This collective anticipation finds release in the applause that greets the ‘Norwegian literary phenomenon’ (this epithet is a permanent attachment) as he and Paula Morris take the stage. She begins by asking whether he ever dreamed of this success. The short answer: ‘No’. His first book in the series, A Death in the Family, was about his ‘very ordinary life’, which both he and his editor were doubtful anyone would want to read about. A low print run ensued; it took off. ‘Being alone in a room and writing what was in my head’ somehow led, to his bewilderment, to being here in New Zealand.
It took many years of practising, Paula suggests diplomatically, to find the right way to tell the right story. Karl outlines his ten years of struggle, the 800 pages of false starts: ‘This was my job, I did this every day and I was failing’. The story he wanted to tell was that of his father’s death and of his own feelings of hate, shame and grief, all jostling in the balance. He tried to write about it for five years, until he thought ‘fuck literature, I am just going to write this at it was’. This removal of restrictions brought sudden relief – the book poured out of him. As he now tells his students, ‘It’s easy to write a novel, it’s just hard to get to a place where it is easy’.
This new-found freedom resulted in his extraordinary series. Its unique form evolved from his love of diaries and the comfort they offered through the details of the everyday, which he merged with the dramatic form. This combination allowed him to be ‘boring’, to integrate thoughts and to leave the book’s dramatic arc up to one hundred pages at a time. It also became much easier to write – he wrote book five in just two months. But Karl Ove sees this as no feat – it is a matter of having low expectations and just writing. ‘When you have restrictions of quality it is much harder’.
He tells us that the accident of memory was responsible for a lot of the work too (he meditates on memory often). In the first book, he needed to lay the ground work so that the reader might feel the effect of his father’s death in a way similar to himself. He ended up, accidentally, writing about when he was 16 in a scene that constitutes half the book. He narrates how he and his friends were on a way to a party, the difficulties in getting beers and then getting there, only to be refused entry. But that is his point: ‘And that’s it; that’s life. It’s boring, there’s a sea of mundane and then death. Death is completely different, it is charged with meaning’. As are love and birth, he offers, the subject of his second book.
And what of the controversial title? He explains this was ‘coincidental, like everything else in these books’. His struggle is about a little life, about ‘misunderstanding things, failing, burning a finger when making food’ – juxtapositioning this with the other My Struggle, which is totalitarian in nature, does inform the work though.
Karl Ove still struggles – he feels a strangeness living in Sweden. ‘There is still a distance in me and that is language’. He is often silenced as he doesn’t know what is appropriate to say in certain situations. This results in retreat. It makes him wonder, ‘Where is your identity? Is it culture? Is it language?’. He, unsurprisingly, has thought about this problem of language – which has also allowed him access to so much, and resonated with so many readers. ‘These things that you think belong to you are charged with something that is not you, that will stay on when you are dead.’ It leads him to question how much of the book is particular to him. ‘Probably almost none of it’, he muses.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
Karl Ove Knausgaard was supported by Norwegian Literature Abroad to be at the Auckland Writers Festival.